Honorary Degree for top psychologist Elizabeth Loftus

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus - the leading psychologist whose work in investigating the unreliability of eyewitness testimony for crimes has changed legal procedures across the world – will this week be awarded an Honorary Degree by Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Professor Loftus has arguably made the greatest contribution to our understanding of human memory in a forensic context of any psychologist, living or dead,” says Professor Chris French, Department of Psychology.

In 2000, Professor French formed the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, a group of researchers whose work has undoubtedly been influenced and shaped by Loftus’s work:

“Back in the 1970s she led research into the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and in the 1980s and ‘90s, again led the field in the investigation of susceptibility to false memories. This work was urgently needed, as families were torn apart and individuals faced criminal charges on the basis of reports based on alleged childhood abuse ‘recovered’ using dubious therapeutic techniques.

“It’s Elizabeth’s research which helped establish the fact that damaging false memories can arise all too easily in such contexts.” 

Professor Loftus is the recipient of some half-dozen honorary degrees from global universities, the American Psychological Foundation’s Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement, election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and in 2002 was the highest ranked woman on the Review of General Psychology’s list of most eminent 20th century psychologists. Since her first case in 1975, Loftus has testified in and advised on hundreds of criminal and civil cases, advising both judges and jurors on the fallibility of memory.

Visiting from California, Professor Loftus gave a high profile public lecture under the auspices of the APRU at Goldsmiths in March 2013, and a second lecture earlier this year on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Both were attended by several hundred staff members, students and enthusiastic sixth formers.

Loftus was nominated for an Honorary Degree by a number of staff members within the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths who name her as an influence on their work. The Department boasts some of the country’s leading researchers in the field of forensic psychology - Fiona Gabbert, Ashok Jansari and Tim Valentine among them - and is preparing to build on that reputation by launching a new as well as a new Forensic Psychology Unit. Professor Loftus will give the keynote speech at the unit launch on the 8th September.

Dr Fiona Gabbert, whose research focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of human memory, says:

“The study of eyewitness memory and identification as well as investigative interviewing is a key research strength for the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, and we’ve all been influenced in some way by Elizabeth’s four decades of contributions to the field. She’s had an overwhelming impact on legal proceedings and the avoidance of miscarriages of justice across the world, but the controversial nature of that work means that her career has not been without its challenges.

“Her courage in standing up to such challenges are a tribute to her intellectual integrity and an example for us all.”


A short interview with Elizabeth Loftus

Of all the court cases you have been involved in, which one was the most memorable and why?

So many memorable ones, this is hard. But one that stands out is the case involving a man named Gary Ramona. He was an executive with a major winery in California who was sued by his daughter, Holly, who said he had sexually abused her. Holly claimed abuse from age 5 to 16, supposedly repressed into her unconscious until she had therapy. Gary sued the therapists for planting false memories and was awarded $500,000. But he lost his job, his family, and his life crumbled. Two decades later he was in town and called to thank me and bring me some nice wine from his new winery. Holly is now a practicing therapist. 

Do you feel that, as a result of your work and that of other researchers, legal professionals are now sufficiently aware of the risks of relying solely on memory in legal cases?

There has been a rise in conscious awareness by the legal field and the therapeutic community. But there are still problems out there. There are still people who are engaging in practices that are risky or even dangerous. So we can’t stop being vigilant. 

What ethical issues are raised by false memory research?

Many. But to name a few, we are getting really good at being able to change people’s memories and influence their behaviour. And with this ability, we as a society perhaps need to think hard about whether we should affirmatively use these techniques, and when we ban their use.

What kind of advice - if any - would you offer to the young graduates of today? 

I love being connected to a university or college. There are always talks and activities that feed my passion for life-long learning. But, even if you’re not working at a university, there are probably more opportunities like this nearby to take advantage of. One skill that I would wish for everyone is a skill that people learn when they study psychology. That is the skill of asking “what is the evidence?” whenever someone tries to press some idea on you. We go even further, we ask exactly what is the evidence? What kind of study was done? Was there a control group? Were proper statistical tests performed? It helps to keep from being fooled.